The Meaning of Anuvrata (Small Vows) - Its Application for the Western World (1)

Posted: 28.09.2008
Updated on: 30.07.2015

While the world in this spiritually dark age - which has already traversed several millennia and will still last many millennia - is struggling with war and crime, fear and ignorance, frustration and the cultural misunderstandings between countries and continents, there have always been at least a few who came to help, to show us the way to a happier and more elevated living, to guide us during our long and often arduous pilgrimage and evolution towards the accomplishment of what we really are: humans in the best sense of the word. Deep within us is a knowing, a wisdom that wants to speak to us. It does so via the impulses of our heart which we recognize as unselfish love, compassion and the wish to be like a radiant star consoling and helping all living beings. It also speaks through our minds, by inspiring us to lofty ideas of how to accomplish a better and happier and nobler world in practice. Our mind allows us to understand the world around us, the secrets of the universe, and ultimately the real, true nature of all phenomena, of existence itself.


Our lowest mind can make us do something worse and a million times more terrifying than even the cruelest animal. But our higher mind can lead us to the portals which give entrance to the realms of the immortals - call them gods or spiritual conquerors if you like.


A few examples of such humble workers for the benefit of those directly around them and for the benefit of the whole of humankind - indeed for all realms of nature where sentient beings live - are the late Acharya Tulsi and his successor Acharya Mahapragya and their many helpers who feel inspired by their approach. These two great humans and humanists work within the field of the small philosophy/religion/science known to the world as Jainism - a jewel among existing religions.


In their concern for the world in its present stage they laid down a modern version of the anuvratas (atomic or small vows) which were formulated in the days of the Jains’ 24th Tîrthamkara (the supreme sanctified preceptor), Mahâvîra, who lived some 2600 years ago.


Acharya Tulsi’s original challenge was to recognize and reorganize the old vows in such a way that Indian people in modern society could understand and apply them. In India this idea has found widespread recognition and appraisal, and thousands actually took the vows. This is the Indian way. But universal ideas are not only for India. Great teachers like Mahâvîra, Buddha, and many others worked for the benefit of all. But their jewels of wisdom have to be presented in accordance with the mind-frames of people the world over. It is these mind-frames which differ on the surface, molded as they are through centuries of isolation and against different backgrounds.


I was born and raised in Europe, in the so-called western part of the world (though I never understood how one can call one part of a round globe in endless space “west” and another “east”). Now I live in India.


An obstacle for the materially often extremely wealthy countries is that people have become used to an unreal easiness of life, where there seems to be a technical solution for every problem. This has led to large scale spiritual indifference and to an attitude that wants to put the whole of nature and even ‘God’ under its personal willpower. People feel rather “happy” with their gadgets and physical and emotional freedom, and numbed as they have become they are unaware that the real happiness of inner freedom and knowledge is something infinitely greater than the everyday happiness in which we usually live. Indeed this “happiness” is pure suffering from the viewpoint of an enlightened being. We have become attached to and are “satisfied” with the glass pearls of the mundane world and are not willing to believe the stories of the pure diamonds of the spirit.


But during lecturing and traveling I have experienced that in spiritually developed countries like India, people lean on age-old cultural experience and teachings. In the west though, especially in America which is a still young country, people can be very open to new ideas. Many spiritual seekers drink the eastern values like nectar or amrita. But it is also a part of the western culture to accept nothing on authority - indeed a necessary precaution and protection against falsehoods entering a spiritually young and error-prone culture. Things must be weighed and judged by the logical mind, against the background of scientific fact, and must be acceptable to the awakening intuitive heart that has already been prepared for this task.


The heart is connected with the innermost nature, with the divine soul even, and it knows no dogmas or commandments. It is connected with direct and real knowledge. People have wandered far away though from listening to the inner “voice of the silence,” and therefore wise people have designed helpful support in the form of spiritual teachings, myths and stories, rules and vows, none of which were ever meant to become dogmas! We can see the harm done by dogmas everywhere in the world around us.


So, what is actually a “vow” (a vrata)? As I see it, vows can be accepted on subsequent levels of increasing helpfulness. Even when only reading or hearing them once, even when they do not stick to our conscious memory, they leave some imprint. They act as seeds which may sprout in the future, near or far. Though our personal mentality may not accept them, in the depth of our being there is some recognition.


A next and most fruitful step is when one not merely takes notice of the vows, but takes them seriously into consideration in one’s mind. Better still, one meditates calmly and analytically on them, so that they become part of one’s realm of thought.


On another level we accept them only as “good intentions.” Good intentions often do not hold very long though. They have to be continuously remembered and repeated to bear any fruit. Better is to think and meditate first. If not followed up, good intentions even hold the danger of killing the young sprout of spiritual elevation - though the essence of the seed can never be killed.


Good intentions or half-hearted vows may be partial. For “beginners” this might be the easier way, when stern decisions are too demanding for now. For example one decides to become a vegetarian, but not in all circumstances, or excluding fish or poultry or eggs. A decision like that is not at all useless. It avoids the suffering of at least some animals, and as far as our own karma is concerned, no good action remains unrewarded, and it brings about some elevation and strength to our own character.


One can think out similar examples for the other atom-vows. Another option is that one accepts a number of vows, but not all of them: one vows to refrain from stealing and lying, but one regards abstinence from non-vegetarian food as too difficult in the present circumstances of life. Also one should consider that vows are more effective for those who have to put more effort in maintaining them. For example ‘not taking what has not been given’ may be more challenging for people in the commercial sector, or in an environment soaked with corruption. When such vows are preserved they make one into a light-bearer in his or her environment, and the positive consequences stretch much farther than betterment of one’s own character alone.


Vows regarding abstinence from sexuality may not be too difficult when you are eighty and therefore of little value if limited to this lifetime only, but when you are twenty things are different. Special vows may be meditated upon according to the circumstances in which you live. Taking of drugs and/or alcohol is staggering among young people, especially in the “developed” world, and these habits need much consideration for the people involved. In special circumstances or professions one may think out useful vows for oneself (such as no unprotected sex if one is a prostitute, thus preventing AIDS etc. for others; or not killing insects or other creatures in the soil for builders, or keeping to one partner for homosexuals “as if married.”


Such things are helpful in building one’s future character. But enormously beneficial, even over lifetimes to come, would be if the prostitute could abandon this form of sex completely, or if a homosexual would have the great strength and courage to accept his situation as a challenge within a wider perspective, and make use of the opportunity to direct his or her mind entirely away from sexual desire and use it for more universal purposes. Every effort, weak or strong, bears its fruit now and in future. One can think up hundreds of such examples.


For someone with a responsible position in the army, a vow of non-violence or non-killing (or ordering others to do so) is almost impossible. But one can use his position to avoid worse and do everything to prevent suffering as much as possible under given circumstances for the “enemy” as well as for friends. Naturally one realizes that the objective experience of suffering is the same for fighters and their family on both sides. Special vows have been formulated by Acharya Tulsi for various categories of people: relating to social class, students, teachers, businessmen, officers/employees, workers, peasants, and, most significantly in our “globalizing” civilization: an international code of conduct, which we will discuss in a future article.


More meditation on physical and psychological suffering (often lavishly provided by nature itself) is needed before one becomes determined enough to take a relatively difficult step. Karma is the unfailing law of cause and effect in nature, and works with “chemical” precision on the gross and subtle matters of which we are composed: whatever one sows - by what one thinks, says, or does - one will reap. Seeds as well as fruits can be weak or strong, beneficial or harmful.


More courageous people with a deeper understanding may take real vows. When someone has reached a stage in which he or she recognizes the deeper values in actual reality of which the formulated vows are reflections, the taking of a vow becomes a natural and happy event. Taking a vow is not meant to suppress nature, thus making men or women depressive; it is meant to support one’s higher inner nature, which will eventually lead to conquest of everything in us that is illusionary and leads to suffering. If one looks at the statues of jinas - of which there are millions in India - they show complete composure and uprightness, and radiant, usually slightly smiling faces. Vows lead to happiness, not sadness.


What is a vow really? It is more than a good intention. It is more than a promise or commitment in everyday society. A real vow is an unbreakable promise - unbreakable without facing the dire consequences. For those who accept God or gods or enlightened beings as a reality, a vow is a promise before this highest Being. For those who follow a guru, as is so often the case in India, a vow is taken before that highly respected person - as the embodied representation of truth or god or Buddha. A vow is a contract with truth; and truth is unshakeable, unerodeable, absolute. Breaking a contract with truth is only harmful to the transgressor, not to truth or God, Buddha or Jina itself. It is like throwing dirt against the wind: it will only contaminate the thrower. The returning “dirt” is this case will be mental confusion, falling back into illusion, with all its painful consequences.


In occult reality a vow means making a link with the higher forces of nature - which are tremendous. It means the promise to cooperate in harmony with the deeper powers of compassion and wisdom in the divine side of nature. Don’t try to turn your personal self against such forces! It can bring no benefit. These intelligent and ultimately compassionate forces may be very unkind to our personal attachments and to comfortable and suitable beliefs and illusions, and are therefore in the iconography of some religions depicted as “wrathful” and “blood thirsty” deities with all kinds of terrible weapons to destroy our ignorance and its consequent illusions and aberrations.


Written vows and spiritual teachers are means to help us. But it will be clear from the above that the highest and most real vows are taken inwardly, in the silent recesses of our being and nobody has to know about our decision. This is not easy, because the external world will misinterpret our behavior. We know that we have made our promise to the divine side of nature as it really is. The vows themselves will deepen and evolve when we make progress on the silent inner path.


Each of us has already taken one vow. It is the primordial vow of nature, our destiny, the “lost son” bound to return home after his enriching experiences in the world or universe.


Our inner Being is waiting with infinite patience and benevolence until our minds consciously take the decision to obey and go for this sacred quest. Why should we let this Being wait longer still?

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